Monday, September 16, 2013

Criterion #349: Kicking and Screaming

The first album I ever bought on cassette was An Innocent Man by Billy Joel. I don't remember exactly how old I was, but since the album came out in 1983 I must have been somewhere between 10 and 12. I was on vacation with my family at my grandparents' home in Florida, and because they weren't ready for "Uptown Girl" and because my parents' car didn't have a tape deck I couldn't listen to it until I got back home to South Carolina. The waiting made it better, and although I don't think I ever bought another Billy Joel album - Ok, I bought one more - there's no doubt that the time and effort involved made the experience of hearing the music more exciting.

I thought of Billy Joel because I just watched Noah Baumbach's 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming again, and my feelings about the film are caught up with the old process of delayed gratification. Kicking and Screaming wasn't the only movie I read about as a young man in Film Threat or Rolling Stone and then had to wait months for at my local video store, but it may be the only one I still come back to. I don't mean for this to be some lament for the monoculture, there are fewer gatekeepers now and that's probably a good thing, but waiting to see Kicking and Screaming was especially ironic because the film itself is about both waiting and choosing and the difficulties involved in each. Grover (Josh Hamilton) has just graduated from a college that very much resembles Baumbach's (and my mother's) alma mater Vassar. Grover's girlfriend Jane (Olivia d'Abo) surprises him by announcing she's off to Prague on a fellowship and so Grover remains in his college town along with his friends Max (Chris Eigeman), Otis (Carlos Jacott), and Skippy (Jason Wiles). The film follows their lives for a few months until life can't be avoided anymore, and Baumbach intersperses their stories with flashbacks to the meeting of Grover and Jane in a writing class.

The events that occur in Kicking and Screaming are incremental: Grover talks with his depressed father (Elliott Gould) about the Knicks, Max tentatively begins a relationship with Kate (Cara Buono),and Skippy re-enrolls in school to be closer to his girlfriend (Parker Posey). What gives them weight is the sense of lives in suspension, of something waiting around the corner that Grover and the others are unable or unwilling to see. d'Abo's Jane hovers over Grover as a symbol of what's possible; her messages from Prague (which Grover can't listen to all the way through) might as well be dispatches from another planet. Baumbach's best stroke, besides the use of Jimmie Dale Gilmore's songs, is to end the film at the moment when Jane and Grover's relationship begins. To do otherwise would send the wrong message, it would celebrate Grover's stasis instead of allowing for the chance that he would go on to write great short stories or for the chance that Baumbach would go on to make great, perceptive films about depressed fathers or talented but creatively blocked men. Kicking and Screaming was and is a film worth finding, and I still love "The Longest Time" too.

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